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Sticking it to Pogo

People show us gadgets - then we tell you all about 'em

Reg Review A couple of weeks or so ago, the BBC Web site ran an ebullient little piece on Pogo, an upcoming mobile Internet device. We received several emails asking what we knew about the machine. Apart from a series of glowing 'is this the next big thing?' articles in the mainstream media, each of them extending the device's launch date by a few months or more, we'd heard little about Pogo and the same-name company behind it.

So we challenged Pogo (the company) to prove that Pogo (the gadget) isn't vapourware, give us a hands-on demo and tell us just how it's going to deliver "3G-like services on existing GSM and GPRS networks" - you can read Reg 3G guru Kieren McCarthy's take on Pogo here - as its Web site promises the device will do.

Which, incidentally, Pogo really needs to update. Some pages claim the device "will deliver rich-media mobile internet services in the second half of 2001", others that Pogo's launch will take place "in the middle of 2001".

The launch will actually take place sometime in January, marketing chief Tim Critchley told us. The precise timing is, to a degree, out of the company's hands. Having secured the support of UK mobile phone retail chain Carphone Warehouse through an exclusive (though only for a time) deal, Pogo is essentially waiting for CW's say-so before it can go public with is product.

Unfinished business

This is not a bad thing - Pogo still has some work to do on the device to make it ready for consumers. The version we got our mitts on was a pre-release prototype fully installed with processor-hogging debug code - and unsquashed bugs - but otherwise pretty close to the final product, we're told.

The Pogo. Although it's bigger than the picture claimsLike the pics on Pogo's Web site, the shipping device will be blue and based on the same 'fat X' design. But while the Web site shows a device that's about the same size as a Palm m505, in reality the beast is about one-and- a-half times larger. It's not bulky, but it is a chunky handheld.

Pogo is based on a 75MHz ARM processor and comes equipped with 16MB of RAM. Extra storage will be provided through Secure Digital Multimedia Cards, fitted into a slot on the top of the device next to the SIM card bay. The SIM card provides authorisation and access to any of the four UK GSM cellular networks. The built-in GSM modem is, we're told, can be easily re-flashed to upgrade to GPRS once the two-and-a-half-generation cellular network becomes more commonplace.

Three of the Pogo's four corner pods contain the device's aerial, straw-thin stylus and recharge port, respectively. The fourth anchors the device's wrap-around screen cover.

Where's the sync port?
Astute readers will already be wondering how a user connect the Pogo to a PC to synchronise their data. You're right to assume the Pogo offers the standard PDA functionality - diary, contact book, to-do list - but no, you can't hook it up to a PC.

Pogo doesn't think this is a problem. The way the company sees it, the device will automatically synchronise data with Pogo's dial-up servers whenever the user goes online and starts reading Web pages.

Alternatively, you can back-up your data on an SD card, if you have one. It's an interesting idea and positions Pogo as more than a mere ISP - it's a back-up service provider too. It also seems a clever use of technology to make users' PDA experience easier, saving them from having to remember to sync their devices on a regular basis - let the network take the strain.

Until, of course, you realise that quite a few people have plenty of PDA data on their PCs that they'd like to access when they're out and about. Pogo will make a device's data available to a user through a personal Web page, but from the sound of it, it isn't going to be easy, say, to upload a host of Outlook email addresses for transfer to the Pogo device.

Perhaps we shouldn't stress this point too far since the Pogo is aimed more at consumers seeking real mobile Net access, than at busy professionals on the move. The PDA features are certainly secondary to the Internet device role.

I love my MP3

But wait, what about the Pogo's much-touted MP3 playback feature? That's not secondary to Net access yet is a much a PC-centric application as a PDA. Even Pogo doesn't pretend that users will be merrily downloading multi-megabyte MP3 files across 14.4kbps or even, perhaps, faster, 2.5G links. Instead, Pogo is looking forward - 'hoping for' might be better - to the day when punters can order a batch of tracks on SD card. In the meantime, MP3 fans may be less-than-satisfied with the device's audio playback opportunities.

If you're after other kinds of content, you'll fare better. The Pogo's homegrown operating system provides a Macromedia Flash-based user interface, which apart from giving the device a groovy, designer look, makes it easy to grab and play Flash-based games and the like across the network. Pogo is trying to attract content developers to create Flash-based apps for the device. The company hasn't got any yet, mind you.

Network access, incidentally, will be initially provided through a 10p-a-minute Carphone Warehouse tariff. Net connectivity will be provided solely by Pogo, all for £7.99 ($11.65) a month.

We found the Pogo's Flash-based interface slow and unresponsive, but don't forget that that may be the effect of the pre-release nature of the code. The device's colour 320x240 display isn't bad, but it uses light reflection rather than a backlight, so it doesn't compare well with an iPaq's. But then the Pogo's battery life - 5-6 hours online; 100 hours standby - is likely to be somewhat better than Compaq machine's, which is particularly important because it has to maintain a cellular connection, of course.

Where's the Web?
That link is the device's raison d'être, providing access to pretty much everything on the Web. Pogo's proxy servers reformat required pages into a Pogo-oriented sub-set of HTML, compress it along images (where possible) and squirt the result down to the Pogo's browser, also written from the ground up by Pogo. Embedded RealPlayer movies and the like are unsupported. The code tries to fit the page into the 320x240 window, but since few Web sites are so accommodating, we reckon users will spend a lot of time scrolling around the pages they're viewing.

We'd like to say it all worked rather well, but alas our attempts to get a connection - we were trying to go through the Vodafone network - proved unsuccessful, so we couldn't test the device's surfability. The UI showed no signal, but the device's flashing signal-strength LED was green. Go figure. Like we say, it's pre-release kit...

Assuming Pogo gets it fixed, we can see its device having a certain consumer appeal. To date, mobile Web access have been provided either by fiddly phone-to-PDA set-ups or expensive all-in-one products like the Trium Mondo. Pogo looks funky and far more fun than the typically more austere executive-oriented PDA. But at £299 ($435), it's going to be a hard sell.

There are plenty of cheaper MP3 players and PDAs, and while Pogo provides all of them together in a single unit, along with way-better-than-WAP mobile Net access, we're still not sure it's a compelling buy. Handspring's Treo 180 - which pretty much offers what the Pogo does, but in a more compact, phone-style shell - is likely to ship in the same timeframe for a similar price and provide some stiff competition. Good luck, Pogo - you're going to need it. ®

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